Frank’s Englishness was all about him for he dressed in country wear: tweed sports jackets, check shirts, Burberry rain macs, and a perpetual woollen flat cap. One could spot him two hundred metres away in a Paris street. In many ways his personality matched his dress style for he had firm conservative views on most things. Once, although he was mildly inebriated at the time, I heard him say that recidivists should be shot. In fact he was a throwback to earlier times.
It beats me why Frank came to live in Paris in the first place for he was persistently critical of the French and this irritated me. Initially I put it down to his lack of fluency in the language, but later dismissed that for several times he surprised with his proficiency. A French girl stood him up once and I know this didn’t help. Finally concluded that most of his disapproval of the French was imprinted by the views of his middleclass parents and by history teachers during his grammar school years.
Frank often had unfortunate timing in voicing his censure of the French. Once while in a café in St. Lazare, he said that during World War II the French collaborated to a man and that the résistance was a laugh. A Frenchman close by heard him and was so incensed that we were lucky to escape from the bar without being assaulted.
On our way home I vigorously chastised Frank. “You told me that your organisation wants to keep you in Paris for several years. Well, you’ll never settle down with any degree of harmony unless you ditch your pre-conceived opinions of the French. You must embrace everything French: their culture, cuisine, and the people. Otherwise your stay here will leave no lasting memories.”
Frank swivelled his head and looked at me severely as if I’d been disloyal, but said nothing.
Recently we met in Le Dôme near Villiers for our weekly moan. After several uncomplimentary remarks about French bureaucracy, French tea and Parisian winters, Frank suddenly changed the subject and asked, “Do you easily differentiate between patriotism and nationalism?”
“Well—instinctively I make an initial black-and-white distinction, but it might take me several minutes to unravel them satisfactorily.”
“Precisely—you know the dictionary definitions are frequently too brief and often narrow.”
“Yes, indeed you sometime have to go to the larger tomes, but why do you ask?”
“Of course, now let me explain. You see I’ve been doing a bit of research into my family tree. With the help of a cousin who is good at that type of thing I have traced my origins way back. Throughout the centuries my family has served in the army and many of my ancestors were killed in battle giving loyalty to king and country.”
“Have you unearthed any skeletons?” I probed.
Giving me a surprised look as if he thought I had been reading his mail he said, “Funny thing…I found something disturbing.”
“Oh,” I exclaimed hoping he’d divulge but he didn’t.
Then, ordering two more beers he sat back surveying the room before pulling his chair closer to mine and leaning forward said, “Let me tell you of an experience I had some time ago. It was a winter’s evening and I went for a walk to relieve my boredom. I have a ‘chicken run’ that I favour for it is partly downhill and there is a diverse range of Asian restaurants, antique shops, gent’s outfitters and stores that never seem to open—rue Legendre. I’m sure you know it?”
“Yes yes I know it well.”
“Quite—well, I crossed rue de Rome and the bridge over the railway lines and on to the white colonial-type church on the left—its name alludes me now.”
“That’s Sainte Marie des Batignolles; it’s in Place du Felix Lobligeois and is a Catholic church,” I pointed out to Protestant Frank. But he ignored the affront and went on,
“Yes indeed—well, before the church there is a small street on the left called rue Boursault”
“I know where you are,” I encouraged.
“Good—there is a shop down there on the right that never seems to open. It’s a faded grey and its paintwork is neglected and peeling with embarrassment. Over the window is the lettering: ‘A.C.P.G. de la Seine, 17e Section.’ In the window is the only indication of the business carried out there: a strangely shaped World War I French helmet with a significant dent, to make one wonder if the wearer had survived; an ancient rectangular box of tobacco, its contents partially spilling out; and an oval water bottle still in its moth-eaten canvas cover and a single tarnished .303 bullet casing standing like a Cape Canaveral space rocket in the middle. Over this display is a gigantic cobweb.
As I came near the shop a tall thin, very old man with a French beret had stopped and was looking at the window display. I was right beside him when I had the courage to say in French, ‘Bonsoir Monsieur, this shop never seems to be open.’”
Half turning and quickly giving me the once-over he responded, “Oh, it may have closed down completely. I’m not surprised for the combatants of the old brigade are nearly all dead. But you know looking at these souvenirs of war is very sad no matter which side you were on.”
Pointing to the lettering over the window, “Were you in the dix-septième section, Monsieur?” I asked.
“No no, Monsieur, but anyone who has been a soldier in war time will sorrow for his comrades.”
All this was in French and his was good, but I knew by now he wasn’t a native for he occasionally sounded consonants at the end of words that should be silent. I was still unsure as to his origin and I put this down to his ill-fitting dentures and his great age. Such confusion was immediately resolved for turning to face me he shot out a bony hand. “ My name is George. I’m English,” and we shook hands.
“So am I. Frank is my name.” Instantly we started to warm to each other as much as Englishmen can on discovering common ground. For a while we went through the usual pleasantries. I then asked him, “Your were in the war I take it?”
“Yes yes I was.”
“Air force, army or the senior service?” I queried.
“Army of course—infantry.”
Feeling a certain resistance to develop the discussion further I looked at my watch and with the pretence of another engagement excused myself and that was that.
Some weeks later on a bitterly cold evening I saw him shambling down rue de Lévis. He was carrying a clear Monoprix plastic shopping bag and through its sides I could make out a jar of Branston pickles and several tins of Heinz baked beans. He looked old and shabby with his half-buttoned raincoat ballooning in the chilling wind. Was about to leave him be, but somehow I felt a certain concern for him—after all he was a fellow countryman.
Catching up with him wasn’t difficult. “Good evening George,” I said with more warmth than I would normally.
He spun around, but it took him several seconds to recognize me. “Ah, yes—‘Frank’ isn’t it?”
“Yes you’re quite right.”
“Oh I’ve been thinking about you. You know there are so few Brits around here to talk to nowadays. Now let me tell you, I regret very much my reticence the last time we met when you enquired about my war years.”
“Well that didn’t register with me,” I lied.
“Good—now if you’re agreeable, I’d like to meet you one evening in Le Sauret , that café on the right at the bottom of rue de Lévis here.”
So we arranged to meet the following Friday and parted.
Friday evening was miserably wet and I was glad to get indoors. The bar was warm, but reeked of tobacco smoke. There was George sitting by the counter, a stubby dark cheroot shaking between his long thin fingers. For an hour we sat, drank and talked. We covered a lot of ground, discussing France and its problems—how much it had changed and where it was going. His speech was slow, deliberate, and punctuated with long bouts of productive coughing. I was beginning to feel the effects of the drink when he slid from his stool and placing a hand on my shoulder said, “I’ve had enough. Now would you like to come with me—I’ve something to show you.”
He took me on a circuitous route down narrow side streets, twisting and turning, and I’m certain he took me through some alleys more than once. Several times he glanced behind as if checking to see if we were being followed. Coming at last to a poorly-lit archway we went through and ten strides further on he stopped by an enormous wooden door and with a key that should have been in a museum, opened it. Immediately the smell of age and damp hit me. We went down a long stone stairway to a good-sized sparsely furnished basement apartment and into a kitchen with appliances that many would have discarded years before.
In an open extension to the kitchen was a workshop, with a metal casting machine, a lathe, and on the shelves overhead, jars of powders, tiny tins of paint and a rack of artist’s brushes—all the equipment of the model maker.
All the time George’s narrow bright eyes watched me, taking in my reactions. Then turning he rummaged in a nearby tea chest and dragging out a bottle of Scotch, poured a large whiskey into two less-than-clean glasses. Clinking his to mine he said, “To peace, not war!”
I echoed that and meant it.
As we drained our glasses he turned and going to a narrow door waved me to follow. “Now I’m going to show you something which few have seen.”
Inside was in total darkness. Suddenly he pulled a switch and a large room took life. The entire basement had been gutted and deepened and divided in two with a wicker fence. George’s thin voice penetrated my thoughts. “This is my memorial to war—to the right of that fence,” but he didn’t finish, for he pulled another switch and a spotlight illuminated a World War I front line with trenches manned by German soldiers and opposite them the British infantry. Behind each trench were mounds of bodies, an ambulance and a field hospital—products of George’s model-making workshop. Immediately he pressed a button and the room was filled with the screams of dying men and the terrible noises of war. A minute later it ceased and the sultry voice of Marlene Dietrich singing “Lily Marlene” took over. As her voice died away George’s monotone broke through saying, “That was the Somme; six hundred thousand allies lost their lives there.” Reaching the control panel again he pulled another switch and to the left of the wicker fence a set-piece battle from World War II started to rage. The throaty noise of churning tanks and the machinery of war was overpowering, but still the piercing screams of dying men rose above it all. When all this ceased the “Horst-Wessel” lied sounded out from a barrage of male voices. The whole thing was frightening and left me shaking. Again George’s voice was in my ear, “An estimated fifty-five million lost their lives in that war, twenty million of them in the USSR alone.”
When the display ended we went back to his kitchen and he, filling the same two glasses with whiskey, toasted ‘peace’ again.
His face took on a grim appearance as he said, “I told you when we first met that I was in the army.”
“Yes I remember that—in the infantry wasn’t it?”
“Precisely, but not for long. You see I went with the British Expeditionary Force to France. Near Dunkirk we were being beaten back by the Germans and my platoon’s morale was desperately low. We were continually strafed by the Luftwaffe. Terrified, I deserted.”
Here he went silent as if he were resting having put down a heavy load. But soon he recovered to go on, “I was picked up by the Germans and ended up in a prisoner-of-war camp. When the Germans discovered I was a linguist they recruited me to work in their propaganda department in Berlin. As the war ended I quietly got out, finishing up in Paris. Two years later I met and married a French girl of German extraction. We set up a flower shop near here and that prospered. In 1960 we purchased this entire building—that’s how I can have my noisy temple to war without any complaints.”
Then getting to his feet he said, “I will show you out. Now that you’ve heard my confession you should know my hell. I don’t expect you to forgive a deserter and a traitor.”
As I left he hit a switch and a rousing German marching song filled the room with its brass and the sound of marching feet. He did not offer his hand believing, I suppose, that it might be refused.
It took me some time to find my way out of the maze of back streets and I was relieved to see the broad avenue de Villiers.
The customers in Le Dôme were starting to thin out now. Frank, having already polished off a half-dozen garlicky escargots was now finishing an andouillette, that foul-tasting sausage made from pig’s intestines of which a French politician made his name by saying that, like politics, it was best with a whiff of shit. Frank then chose an evil smelling overripe Camembert and having swilled the last morsel down with the remainder of his wine, licked his lips and said, “You know, Vincent, this French food is unequalled and absolutely marvellous.”
I recorded that, but said nothing and quickly switched back the conversation to George and asked, “What can one say about people like George—a deserter who betrayed his country?” I asked.
Frank took his time in answering. First, slowly wiping his mouth with his napkin and then giving me an uncertain look said, “I would not judge him. War takes little account of mental strengths and
weaknesses—war is a blunderbuss that kills everything including the person who fires it. Not everyone can take the pressure and we must be caring of those who can’t.”
Here he lowered his voice and looking around to see if anybody was listening in went on, “I didn’t tell you this before, Vincent, that in my research into my family background I discovered that my grandfather died in West Flanders during the British offensive at Passchendaele Ridge in World War I…he was shot for cowardice.”
Desmond King was born in 1933 in Leitrim in Ireland’s north west and worked all his life as a dental surgeon. He wrote many short stories, a play, a biographical article on a colleague printed in the “College of Surgeons Journal”, and the recently published novel, Bellcast about the loneliness of the life of young priests causing tragic consequences.
He was awarded “Best Individual Speaker” at the Irish Times National Debating Championship in 1960 and also headed the Literary and Debating Society at the Irish Club while working in London. His reputation as a raconteur followed him on his world travels. He died in Bordeaux in 2011.